Recognise Your Communication Style In An Argument (Four Horsemen And Their Antidotes)

She says, “Honey, were we not supposed to call the play school and inform them that Shraddha won’t be able to attend next week as we are supposed to go for a wedding? You said you will do it.”

To which he says, “Why are you asking me? Why am I always supposed to look after these concerns? Why didn’t you do it yourself?”

Does this sound like a typical fight between couples? Are you able to relate with this? If yes, you are not the only one! Such conflicts tend to happen between couples all the time.

The Four Horsemen are 4 types of ways in which couples tend to interact with each other, especially during a conflict. These styles tell us about the probability of divorce according to the research by Dr. John Gottman.

Following are the Four Horsemen and their proposed antidotes:

1. Criticism:

Criticism is different from raising a complaint. It is more about attacking someone’s entire being, like an ad hominem argument. Instead of raising a specific bothersome issue, the person engages in colouring the entire personality of the partner in a single shade, which more often than not, may not be the case. Statements that attack a person can look a lot like “you never” or “you always” absolute statements or statements including “always” and “never” that indicate a consistency with the entire personality.

Antidote: Beneath criticism lies a certain need, a wish, a longing. Using “I” statements instead of the “you” statements help over here as they talk about a specific need and remove the negative charge that criticism brings with it.

For example, saying “I would really appreciate it if you washed the utensils today. Last time it caused trouble early in the morning as I cannot afford to get late for work again” as opposed to, “you never wash the utensils before going to sleep and have absolutely no respect for how it impacts my mornings, especially because I have to leave early” communicates a need in a much gentler way.

2. Contempt:

When a person shows contempt, they want to make the person feel ashamed, worthless and assume a moral superiority. Contempt is known to be one of the greatest predictors of divorce and couples who are involved in a contemptuous relationship tend to also have weakened immune systems! Contempt can take many forms like name calling, sarcasm, labelling, mimicking, showing contempt though body language like sneering, scoffing, eye-rolling, etc. Contempt is known to be the most dangerous of all horsemen.

Examples of contempt could look something like, “You can never be on time to save your life, can you?” or “Could you be any more pathetic than this? I have been running around the house for the entire day and all you do is play those stupid video games!”

Antidote: Contempt can emanate from long simmering and bottled-up feelings and emotions. To repair the damage done from contempt, one has to actively and very consciously try and cultivate a culture of appreciation and respect in the relationship. This can be done by appreciating the small positive things in the relationship, appreciating small attempts towards change, and expressing gratitude, affection and respect through small acts that can eventually balance out the negativity of the relationship and create a buffer for the negative feelings too.

An antidote to one of the examples of contempt above can look like: “I know you have been busy with your work a lot these days, however, I miss our night time together more than ever. Sometimes I even envy your colleagues as they get to spend more precious time with you than I do. I would really appreciate it if there can be a balance here or if you can take a day off just for us one of these days, what do you think?”

3. Defensiveness:

Defensiveness can be understood as an act of preserving sense of self worth and pride in the face of criticism or even contempt. Defensive attitude could be exhibited in the face of an actual attack but sometimes it could also be projection as well, that is, the perception of an attack. Typical defensive responses can be in the form of excuses, reverse blaming or counter criticism, victimizing oneself, over explanation, etc.

Antidote: An approach where the partner raising the concern has their perception been seen as valid from their lens could ease the tension. At the same time, being honest with oneself and taking responsibility for your part would be the ultimate approach as well. The idea is to ultimately work towards mutual understanding and compromise. Perspective taking as a skill can do wonders here.

Example: A partner asking for the bill payment of monthly newspaper: “Hey honey, did you again forget to pay our newspaper guy? This is happening for the third time now…”

Defensive Response:

“What do you mean third time? You know I have been so busy lately, then why do you have to rely on me for this? You could have done it too.”

Non-defensive Response:

“Oh yes, I forgot again. Sorry, as you know, I have been busy with work and seem to have forgotten again. Maybe this time you can pay it and later we can discuss how to go about this in future so we don’t miss it again?

4. Stonewalling:

When the negativity created by the other three horsemen often reaches a certain threshold, there can be a tendency to shut oneself off during conflicts post a certain point in the relationship. This can happen in the form of tuning out or turning away from the argument like visibly withdrawing by walking away, staying silent or not responding. Stonewalling happens because there is physiological flooding or a feeling of being overwhelmed from emotions and constant arguments/attacks. Men are more likely to stonewall than women.

Antidote: The antidote to stonewalling lies in the recognition of the body’s response of shutting down. It is natural if you are feeling overwhelmed or threatened by your environment in a way that you do not wish to engage or know how to react in a moment. In such cases, it is rather prudent to take time off and then later on come back with a fresh mind to address the problem at hand. The idea of taking time off to calm down is called physiological self-soothing.

Being able to identify and be aware of these horsemen helps us repair conflicts and even respond effectively in the middle of a conversation that has the potential to get heated. It is really important how we criticize in our relationships by maintaining respect and also communicating our feelings and expectations. When you see more negative in your relationship than positives, its time to reflect or seek relationship counselling that can help you in finding and improving your communication style with your partner.

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